The splashy Saudi mega-project NEOM is chasing Chinese funds – World

HONG KONG: The leaders behind a Saudi megacity dogged by questions about its viability have wrapped up a tour courting Chinese investors, outlining plans for a futuristic ski resort and 105 miles of skyscrapers.

The roadshow for NEOM, brainchild of de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, traveled from Beijing to Shanghai to Hong Kong, where potential business partners flocked to a swanky museum for two days to view dazzling displays at various stages of development.

No major deals were announced, and top project officials did not address recent reports that NEOM’s ambitious construction and population targets are being rolled back.

But they did offer a glimpse into how NEOM has evolved since Prince Mohammed first announced it in 2017, raising eyebrows over its $500 billion price tag.

NEOM’s executive director Tarek Qaddumi led journalists through an exhibition at Hong Kong’s M+ museum on Friday, speaking about NEOM’s goal of balancing “nature conservation, human viability and economic prosperity.”

“NEOM is a very comprehensive vision… It is an initiative that is probably the most exciting and forward-looking in the 21st century,” he said.

The exhibition helped make NEOM “less mysterious,” and reactions at an invitation-only reception were “largely neutral,” said Leonard Chan, chairman of the Hong Kong Innovative Technology Development Association.

NEOM’s Executive Director Tarek Qaddumi (R) said the project’s goal was to balance “nature conservation, human viability and economic prosperity.” Photo: AFP

However, he demurred when discussing whether he was sold on living at the center of NEOM, known as The Line, two mirror-encased skyscrapers that stretch 170 kilometers (105 miles) across the Saudi desert.

‘I visit there for fun, but I’m not going to live there. It’s like something out of SimCity,” he said AFP.

“If I live there, I might not want to leave. It’s like I’m isolated from the world and I just can’t stand it.”

Plato Yip, chairman of Hong Kong environmental group Friends of the Earth, which is exploring green hydrogen deals with NEOM, similarly said that The Line “feels like you’re locked inside, even though it can be very comfortable.”

Shorten ‘The Line’?

Unveiling The Line in 2022, Prince Mohammed said the population would surpass one million by 2030, before rising to nine million by 2045.

However Bloomberg reported this month that, according to revised projections, only 300,000 people would live in The Line by the end of the decade, and that only 1.5 miles of the project would be completed by then.

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NEOM did not respond to a request for comment on the Bloomberg report.

Standing Friday near a model of The Line — a shiny blade cutting inland from the Red Sea — Qaddumi said only that the population target of nine million would be reached “over time.”

He described features of The Line, including a 650-meter-long “cantilever” jutting out into the Gulf of Aqaba, as well as a “hidden marina.”

He also said tunnels are under construction that will allow The Line to pass through desert mountains and there will be an airport expected to welcome 100 million passengers a year and provide a “seamless approach” to the city.

‘You get off the plane and walk into the city. We eliminate all the hassle of passing through an airport, whether it’s immigration or security or even… receiving your luggage at the airport. Your luggage will be shipped directly to your address.”

Apart from The Line, Qaddumi said the luxury yacht island Sindalah was “under construction” and would be “completed by the end of the year, ready for visitors to spend some time in NEOM”.

Trojena, the futuristic ski resort with an artificial lake and 36 kilometers of slopes, is due to be completed before 2029, when it will host the Asian Winter Games.

Courting investors

NEOM’s investor roadshow also included stops in Europe and the United States.

The megacity is making progress alongside other major development projects launched as part of Vision 2030, Prince Mohammed’s bid to position the world’s largest crude oil exporter for an eventual post-oil future.

The roadshow for NEOM traveled from Beijing to Shanghai to Hong Kong in search of Chinese investment. Photo: AFP

Last year, the Gulf kingdom emerged as the sole bidder to host the 2034 World Cup, meaning it now has a decade to build the necessary stadiums and increase its accommodation and transport capacity.

In December, Finance Minister Mohammed al-Jadaan said officials had decided to push the timeframe for some major projects beyond 2030, without specifying which ones.

“Certain projects can be extended for three years – so it is 2033 – some will be extended until 2035, some will be extended even beyond that and some will be rationalized,” he said.

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Robert Mogielnicki of the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington said projects related to specific events would likely be prioritized.

“The Saudis would not be able to move 100 miles per hour in all directions indefinitely on the development front,” he said, adding that Riyadh needs consistent, sustainable growth in foreign investment from various sectors.

“It’s no secret that they haven’t achieved that yet.”